Algonquin Round Table

The period that followed the end of World War I was one of gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. Surely one of the most profound — and outrageous — influences on the times was the group of a dozen or so tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. For more than a decade they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.

It all began with an afternoon roast of the New York Times drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. A number of writers met up at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th street and had such a good time that the event was repeated the next day, and the day after that, until the lunch table at the Algonquin was established as a ritual. The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group, including such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward. The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work. Outspoken and outrageous, they would often quote each other freely in their daily columns.

Round Tabler Edna Ferber, who called them “The Poison Squad,” wrote, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.” Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Some of the most notable members of the Round Table came together to work on significant collaborative projects. George Kaufman teamed up with Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly on some of his best stage comedies, including Dulcy and The Royal Family. Harold Ross of The New Yorker hired both Dorothy Parker as a book reviewer and Robert Benchley as a drama critic.

By 1925, the Round Table was famous. What had started as a private clique became a public amusement. The country-at-large was now attentive to their every word—people often coming to stare at them during lunch. Some began to tire of the constant publicity. The time they spent entertaining and being entertained took its toll on several of the Algonquin members. Robert Sherwood and Robert Benchley moved out of the hotel in order to concentrate on and accomplish their work. In 1927, the controversial execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose case had divided the country and the Round Table for six years, seemed to cast a pall over the group’s unchecked antics. Dorothy Parker believed strongly in the pair’s innocence, and upon their deaths she remarked “I had heard someone say and so I said too, that ridicule is the most effective weapon. Well, now I know that there are things that never have been funny and never will be. And I know that ridicule may be a shield but it is not a weapon.”

As America entered the Depression and the more somber decade of the 1930s, the bonds that had held the group together loosened; many members moved to Hollywood or on to other interests. “It didn’t end, it just sort of faded,” recalled Marc Connelly. A decade after it began, the Algonquin Round Table was over. Not forgotten, the Round Table remains one of the great examples of an American artists’ community and the effects it can have on its time.

“That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”

~ Dorothy Parker

Once when asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”

~ George S. Kaufman

Reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they don’t say which part.”

~ Robert Sherwood

Sources: PBS American Masters

Eulogy on the Flapper – Zelda Fitzgerald (1922)

What follow is the first couple of paragraphs of Eulogy of the Flapper, published in 1922. Of course the flapper was very much a part of the years to come, but she makes some salient observations.

“The Flapper is deceased. Her outer accoutrements have been bequeathed to several hundred girls’ schools throughout the country, to several thousand big-town shopgirls, always imitative of the several hundred girls’ schools, and to several million small-town belles always imitative of the big-town shopgirls via the “novelty stores” of their respective small towns. It is a great bereavement to me, thinking as I do that there will never be another product of circumstance to take the place of the dear departed.

“I am assuming that the Flapper will live by her accomplishments and not by her Flapping. How can a girl say again, “I do not want to be respectable because respectable girls are not attractive,” and how can she again so wisely arrive at the knowledge that “boys do dance most with the girls they kiss most,” and that “men will marry the girls they could kiss before they had asked papa”? Perceiving these things, the Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge, and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure; she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim, and most of all to heart. She had mostly masculine friends, but youth does not need friends—it needs only crowds, and the more masculine the crowds the more crowded for the Flapper. Of these things the Flapper was well aware!

“Now audacity and earrings and one-piece bathing suits have become fashionable and the first Flappers are so secure in their positions that their attitude toward themselves is scarcely distinguishable from that of their debutante sisters of ten years ago toward themselves. They have won their case. They are blasé. And the new Flappers galumping along in unfastened galoshes are striving not to do what is pleasant and what they please, but simply to outdo the founders of the Honorable Order of Flappers: to outdo everything. Flapperdom has become a game; it is no longer a philosophy.

~ Zelda Fitzgerald, from Metropolitan Magazine, June 1922.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman “Suicide Note”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman—writer, philosopher, feminist, and social critic—contributed significantly to 20th-century political and feminist theory. Born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, she lived much of her childhood in poverty after her father left the family when she was seven years old. She taught herself to read, studied music, and was largely self-educated in the fields of history, sociology, biology, and evolution. She attended public school sporadically until age 15 and later studied at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932. Before this diagnosis, Gilman had written about euthanasia and right-to-die issues. In one passage from her posthumously published autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), she remarks after visiting her ill father in a sanitarium that a future civilized society would not “maintain such a horror.” In 1935, after living three years with a cancer she had been told would kill her within a year and a half, Gilman ended her life by inhaling chloroform. She left a letter, conventionally called a suicide note, which stressed her view of the primacy of human relationships and social responsibility

SUICIDE NOTE, AUGUST 17, 1935

Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortunate, or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.

~ Charlotte Perkins Gilman – August 17th, 1936

Quips, Wit and One liners of Yesteryear

Insults from an era of quips and wit, “before” the English language got boiled down to 4-letter words:

  1. “He had delusions of adequacy ” Walter Kerr
  2. “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”- Winston Churchill
  3. “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure. – Clarence Darrow
  4. “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”-William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)
  5. “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)
  6. “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.” – Moses Hadas
  7. “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” – Mark Twain
  8. “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” – Oscar Wilde
  9. “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” -George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
  10. “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second… if there is one.” – Winston Churchill, in response
  11. “I feel so miserable without you; it’s almost like having you here” – Stephen Bishop
  12. “He is a self-made man and worships his creator.” – John Bright
  13. “I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.” – Irvin S. Cobb
  14. “He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others.” – Samuel Johnson
  15. “He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up. – Paul Keating
  16. “He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.” – Forrest Tucker
  17. “Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?” – Mark Twain
  18. “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” – Mae West
  19. “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” – Oscar Wilde
  20. “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.” – Andrew Lang (1844-1912)
  21. “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.” – Billy Wilder
  22. “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But I’m afraid this wasn’t it.” – Groucho Marx
  23. The exchange between Winston Churchill & Lady Astor: She said, “If you were my husband I’d give you poison.” He said, “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
  24. “He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.” – Abraham Lincoln
  25. “There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.” — Jack E. Leonard
  26. “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” — Thomas Brackett Reed
  27. “He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them.” — James Reston (about Richard Nixon)

Lost Generation

In the aftermath of World War I there arose a group of young persons known as the “Lost Generation.” The term was coined from something Gertrude Stein witnessed the owner of a garage saying to his young employee, which Hemingway later used as an epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926): “You are all a lost generation.” This accusation referred to the lack of purpose or drive resulting from the horrific disillusionment felt by those who grew up and lived through the war, and were then in their twenties and thirties. Having seen pointless death on such a huge scale, many lost faith in traditional values like courage, patriotism, and masculinity. Some in turn became aimless, reckless, and focused on material wealth, unable to believe in abstract ideals.

In literature, the “Lost Generation” refers to a group of writers and poets who were men and women of this period. All were American, but several members emigrated to Europe. The most famous members were Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot.

Common themes in works of literature by members of the Lost Generation include:

Decadence – Consider the lavish parties of James Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or those thrown by the characters in his Tales of the Jazz Age. Recall the aimless traveling, drinking, and parties of the circles of expatriates in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. With ideals shattered so thoroughly by the war, for many, hedonism was the result. Lost Generation writers revealed the sordid nature of the shallow, frivolous lives of the young and independently wealthy in the aftermath of the war.

Gender roles and Impotence – Faced with the destruction of the chivalric notions of warfare as a glamorous calling for a young man, a serious blow was dealt to traditional gender roles and images of masculinity. In The Sun Also Rises, the narrator, Jake, literally is impotent as a result of a war wound, and instead it is his female love Brett who acts the man, manipulating sexual partners and taking charge of their lives. Think also of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Prufrock’s inability to declare his love to the unnamed recipient.

Idealised past – Rather than face the horrors of warfare, many worked to create an idealised but unattainable image of the past, a glossy image with no bearing in reality. The best example is in Gatsby’s idealisation of Daisy, his inability to see her as she truly is, and the closing lines to the novel after all its death and disappointment:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther… And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sources: Writers Inspire

Nobody-But-Yourself – e.e. cummings

“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

~ e.e. cummings

Paradise Lost, Book II Excerpt

“Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage . . .”

~ John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II

#FavoriteQuotes #JohnMilton #ParadiseLost

Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett

On this date in 1948, Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett was born in Buckinghamshire, England. He enjoyed reading, especially science fiction, fantasy, myth and ancient history. He has said that from a young age he was skeptical about Christianity and came to the conclusion that there was no god. He has won many awards, including the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and Educated Rodents (2001), and was knighted in 2009 for his services to literature. Several of his books have been adapted as movies for television.

Pratchett’s first novel, Carpet People, a children’s fantasy, was published in 1971. Pratchett is best known for his “Discworld” novels, a fantasy series tied together not by characters or plot but by the setting of the Discworld, a flat world sitting on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space. The first book in this series, The Color of Magic, a fantasy adventure starring a hapless wizard parodying many conventions of the genre, was published in 1983, and the thirty-eighth, I Shall Wear Midnight, a coming-of-age story featuring a strong young witch battling prejudice, was published in 2010. The Discworld, like many fantasy worlds, features gods who occasionally interfere directly in events or feature as characters in some way. In 2007, Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but has continued to write and publish new books, albeit at a slower pace. He has made many public statements in support of the right to die, and talks openly about his Alzheimer’s experience, including his wish to take his own life before his disease is critical. He was knighted in 2009.

Throughout his work, Pratchett questions religion in many different ways, pointing out religious hypocrisy while at the same time illustrating how different the world would be if God, or any gods, were real. The 1992 Discworld novel Small Gods shows the god Om visiting his worshipers, and being deeply dissatisfied with the direction in which his church has gone. Good Omens (1990), co-written with fellow British fantasy author Neil Gaiman, deals with Christian mythology and the book of Revelations. It begins with an angel and a demon conversing outside the Garden of Eden and questioning God’s motives regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It ends with the ten-year-old antichrist, Adam, contemplating the raid of a neighbor’s orchard and thinking, “There never was an apple . . . that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.” Pratchett said, “I read the Old Testament all the way through when I was about 13 and was horrified” (The Daily Mail, U.K., June 21, 2008).

“There is a rumor going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is s evidence that they exist.”
~ Sir Terry Pratchett, The Daily Mail (U.K.), June 21, 2008

Mary Wollstonecraft Birthday

On this date in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, the second of seven children. The industrious young woman worked as a companion, governess and then opened her own school. Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was published in 1786, followed by a novel, a children’s book (re-issued with illustrations by William Blake), a translation, and The Female Reader. When Edmund Burke read her review of a sermon by dissenting minister Richard Price, he wrote a famous attack on the American and French Revolutions. Mary was the first to rebut his polemic. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published five weeks later, rejecting all arguments from authority or precedent. Her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. The first influential book calling for the equality of the sexes, it urged that women be educated and treated as “rational creatures.” Wollstonecraft championed dress reform, breast-feeding, early education and a national system of coeducational primary schools. She warned of those who practice “on the credulity of women.”

She gave birth to a daughter in an unhappy liaison with Gilbert Imlay, then married atheist William Godwin in 1797. Following an uneventful pregnancy, 38-year-old Mary gave birth to a second daughter, Mary. The new mother died of a childbirth infection after ten intense days of suffering. Her daughter Mary ran off as a teenager with poet Percy Shelley, and wrote Frankenstein at age 19. Wollstonecraft was an ardent rationalist and Deist who adopted an agnostic point of view toward the end of her life. D. 1797.

“. . . the being cannot be termed rational or virtuous who obeys any authority but that of reason.”
~ Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)